The bullpen phone rings just as my cutter settles into Johnny’s glove. He nods, but I know the ball was a little outside. I have the pitch if Johnny signals for it, but I’d rather not use it.
Liggs, our bullpen coach, answers the phone, but other than his “Bullpen” greeting, he hasn’t uttered a word. The hair on the back of my neck stands up as I prepare to throw a 2 seamer. I can feel Liggs’s eyes on me. He nods and hangs up.
This is it. The moment I’d never been waiting for.
I make direct eye contact with him. “How’s the shoulder?”
“Itchy,” I reply. “The crazy cat we adopted sheds everywhere, and I had no idea I was allergic.”
“There’s some herbal supplement you can take. Ask Doc for it after the game,” Liggs says. “Other than that…”
“Everything is fine,” I say with confidence. And for the first time in months, I actually believe myself.
Liggs gives me a quick run-down. Starky is at the plate. He’s only batting .319 in the last nine games with runners in scoring position and one out. Starky likes to chase the slider, which is bad news for him because today mine feels good. Two up, two down is all I need. Don’t try to be a hero; don’t try to recreate the old days. Just let him make contact with the ball and hit it at someone. Menendez is after Starky. Dude’s low in the batting order, but when I last faced him with Boston, he had my fastball. I remember the days when no one had my number. Dude may be batting seventh, but he made me look like a joke.
Then again, who didn’t? my inner critic sneers. I’d kept that private bully tied and gagged in the deepest corner of my mind since my first Major League game, but for the last season and a half, he’d sat on my shoulder — my throwing shoulder — like the little devil in the cartoons.
Shut up! the little angel on the other shoulder says, You’re home now. Finally, the little angel on my left shoulder had found her voice, and she sounded exactly like my wife.
I make my way to the bullpen door and walk into Goodman Park. This is the field where my career began.
My walk-up music starts as I open the door. It’s the same song I used in my rookie year as a starter, the hottest starter on the team: Midnight City by M83. The song has barely made it past the opening bars before the crowd drowns it out. My game face is strong, but I have to keep my emotions in check. Sitting between home and first, three rows back, I know Carrie is crying.
The score is 5-2. I’m in line for the save, but could get a loss. Norm the Storm Carter pitched brilliantly into the 5th. He’s a solid #3 in the rotation but currently leads the starters in no-decisions because our pen implodes on him around the 7th inning. Our bats have improved greatly since I was a starter; all the team needed was a new batting coach and an entirely new roster. But we’re still among the worst in slugging percentage and extra base hits, which comes as no surprise to anyone who’s been a fan of this team since its inception. Pitching has always been the heart and soul of the team, but they have struggled for 2 straight seasons to find a solid closer. Meanwhile, I’ve struggled for the last season and a half to find a team willing to even let me on their field. Ten years ago this team built me into a star. Now we are each other’s last resorts.
The grass still smells as sweet and fresh as it did several hours earlier when it was trimmed. The grass is squishy but the dirt beneath it is fast and firm. My cleats sink smoothly into the grass as I trek to the mound where it all began.
The crowd is on their feet, screaming, waving their caps, holding up signs:
WELCOME BACK MATT!
WE LOVE YOU!
ALWAYS OUR #1!
YOU CAN GO HOME AGAIN!
Will they feel this way if I blow it? If the boos are anything close to the hurrahs, the entire stadium might collapse.
Starky takes a few practice swings and steps back in the box. No doubt he’s rolling his eyes. He witnessed my fall from grace in Boston. He took serious advantage of my waning velocity. Starky knows what I’m capable of, but he’s not scared of me. Not anymore.
You never faced me here though, Stark. This was my first home. I got married here. My kids were born here. It’s my home in the off season. And that’s my plate you’re kicking dirt on.
I refuse to look into the crowd. I’m scared I’ll see Carrie and lose my concentration. But I know she’s watching me. She didn’t wear makeup to the game today because she knew she was going to cry it off. She didn’t cry when she gave birth to our twins, but baseball is her Nicholas Sparks movie adaptation.
The fans settle down as I step on the mound. I take a deep breath. In an instant, my whole career flashes before my eyes. My Cy Young award. The World Series Win. The surgery. The rehab. The triumphant return. The vanishing stamina. The balls too high and outside. The boos. The DFA. The minors. The call from Moose, my first coach in the majors, now the general manager. His “insulting” suggestion that I become a closer had brought me right here to this moment.
Miguel flashes the signal for a cutter. I shake my head. I want my 2 seamer. I paint a mental picture of nearly decapitating Starky with it although my fast balls die after 3 innings, if I’m being brutally honest.
Miguel signals the slider. Not yet, amigo. It feels good, but Starky needs to remember who he’s dealing with.
Finally, Miguel and I agree on the 2 seam fastball. I wind up and let it fly. My arm feels like it’s 25 again.
The ball sails high and outside. Starky doesn’t flinch. Miguel springs up from his crouch to catch it. Ball one. The crowd responds with a resounding “Awwwwww.”
No big deal, Matt. If you let every first pitch ball get to you, you never would have made it out of Little League.
Miguel appears to agree and signals for the 2 seamer again. I throw that bad boy yet again. It’s not as high, but it’s still too far outside. Starky yawns. He thinks he has me now.
Miguel suggests the 4 seam fastball. Again, I throw hard, but my location is off and now I’m far behind on the count. Starky hasn’t even attempted to swing. I’m embarrassing myself in my first inning ever as a closer, and I’m quickly horrifying the fans.
Perhaps I should have gone with the slider.
Reading my mind, Miguel makes the hand signal for the pitch. There’s a tiny twitch in my throwing arm as I nod, and my inner bully, the shoulder devil, tells me I’m fatiguing already. I’m not locating the fastball. I’m hesitant because I’m still compensating for the pain I felt before the surgery. Now the movement is too far imprinted and it’s all over. Retire now, Matt, while you still have your 3 year-old childrens’ respect.
My heart starts pounding. Not the ideal moment to develop anxiety. I break concentration for one second and look toward the section where my wife sits. I catch a glimpse again of one of the fans’ signs:
YOU CAN GO HOME AGAIN.
Carrie is sitting near the guy holding that sign. I see her head tilt just a tiny bit to my right, her left. I look down and catch the position of my foot. It’s pointed too far towards third. That’s why my throws are too far outside. How long had Carrie been trying to give me that signal while I purposely avoided looking for her? She knew as well as any coach, any player, that it’s not just the speed and strength of the arm that determines a pitch; it’s the entire motion.
Ok Matt, turn your foot, shift your weight, and just throw the ball before you turn into a human rain delay.
Starky swings and corkscrews himself 360 degrees. On the last pitch he had all the poise of Ted Williams; now he looks like the Tasmanian Devil. The crowd starts applauding. I appreciate the support, but this game ain’t over yet and I’m still behind in the count.
My guarded optimism quickly morphs into cynicism as my next throw is yet again high and outside. A lump rises in my throat as Starky trots to first. He doesn’t make a huge show out of it, but he raises his eyebrows at Darius when his foot hits the bag. Darius doesn’t acknowledge him; he’s too busy leaving the bag to join the other position players who are now encircling me on the mound.
For a second I consider running off the field, throwing my glove into the stands, changing my name, and starting a new life with a silent monk order. I find myself astonished to even be thinking like that. Walking guys always made me angry in my heyday. The following batter usually wanted to just turn back to the dugout and sit out his plate appearance because he knew I was going to throw BBs. There were always more innings, was my attitude. Now I only get 3 outs or less to do my job, and it messes with my head.
I take a deep breath and await the encouragement my teammates are about to offer.
“Old man, can you just pop a quick fly or 2 so we can go home?” Darius asks. “I’m starving.”
“Compadre,” says Miguel. “You took your nitroglycerin tonight, no?”
The 35 year old fossil that I am looks around at his teammates. These aren’t the guys I first wore this uniform with. Danny Boy has been replaced by the hangry Darius. Julian Marco, the first 2nd baseman I played with, is now a 21-year-old rookie named, oddly enough, Marco Julian. That’s not my 3rd base guy or my shortstop either. All these kids were only dreaming of the majors when I lit up this ballpark at their age. And that catcher, Miguel, was definitely not Ike. Ike hadn’t caught me for 6 years by the time he retired, but he still jokes that his left hand is forever swollen from my fastballs. I wish it was Ike behind the plate, not this stranger, barely out of puberty, arguing with me over the 2 seamer. But Ike is in the sportscaster booth now calling the game.
“Look, I know you were all infants when I first started, but that walk puts Menedez right where I want him,” I explain. “I’m about to show you what a K machine looks like.”
“Compadre,” Miguel replies, “you don’t need to set the pace; you just gotta get the outs. No one cares about Ks anymore; that’s why you are a closer.”
“This is my mound,” I shoot back, puffing my chest a bit. “I’m still the strike machine.”
“You don’t have to be, bro, that’s what we’re here for,” Darius says. The other infielders nod in agreement.
“I’ve got the fastball,” I insist. “You guys can relax; I got it.”
“Compadre, you’ll still be the hero without a strikeout,” Miguel argues. “It’s not about eating the innings and scaring the lineup now. We already have starters that take care of that.”
I start to give Miguel a death glare, then drop my shoulders and sigh. “I’m struggling with that, okay? I spent 10 years carrying this team, Boston, even the triple A rotations. Here, I don’t have extra innings to correct mistakes. Do you understand that it’s just as hard to figure out this new role as it was to be the #1 starter?”
“You didn’t have any innings left as a starter in Boston either,” Miguel says softly. “Not at the end. You’re still a pitcher. You KNOW this role is just as important as starting. So throw a damn curve at Menendez to pop him out quickly, and we’ll move on.”
“Compadre,” I try out Miguel’s favorite word. “My curve does nothing in this park except disappear over the outfield wall. The dry air and altitude hands out curves on a silver platter.”
“Don’t blame the stupid AIR, man. Your curve sucks because you have a tell everyone knows about.”
“You always stretch out your hips and stick your gut out before you throw a curve. Even the hot dog guy can hit you off that clue. Don’t do that, and Menendez won’t stand a chance. He loves curves. Can’t help himself.”
I process this information for a moment. All these years and no one had ever bothered telling me I had a tell for my curve. I just thought it was my weakest pitch. The fastballs and the slider were so strong, I just focused on those.
“After all those years, “ I muse. “We had a curve specialist in Boston, and before then, Ike and I just figured it was the air out here.”
“Nah, Ike knew,” Miguel says, pulling his mask over his face. “He just never asked for the curve because your tell grossed him out.”
I cover my face with my glove again to hide my laughter. Now it makes sense why Carrie often said she wished she saw me throw more curves.
Everybody takes their positions. Menendez takes his stance. He’s expecting a fastball, but he’s ready for anything. Right before Miguel gives the signal, I briefly panic that the curve tell is so automatic I’ve already given it and wonder if I should push for the old faithfuls. Then I realize I’ve never known a catcher with as keen an eye for body language as Miguel. And he had no problem putting me in my place when I just wanted to be coddled. My respect for him increases exponentially just then. As a pitcher, my trust in the catcher is everything. In this moment, I trust Miguel more than anyone.
So when his hand signs for the curve, I nod. No more second guesses, no more wishing for the glory days. All I think about is that poster board in the stands — YOU CAN GO HOME AGAIN —, and the whiff I’m about to watch Menedez take, swinging at a disappearing curveball.
Not the sound I want to hear.
The ball whizzes past me in a flash of white blur. It’s much too far for me to reach for it. All I can do is watch helplessly as Menedez takes off for first. The only sound I hear is Starky cackling as he departs for second. Where is the ball?
I spin to the right, praying to all the gods of all the religions that it has not caught air and taken off for the heart of downtown.
Taylor appears from out of nowhere from his shortstop position. He gobbles up the ball and tosses it to second. Marco relays it to Hangry Darius, who is no doubt picturing the ball as a juicy steak as he stretches, careful to keep his other foot on the bag. The ball lands in his glove. A classic 6-4-3 double play. The ball game is over.
It’s my first save in my first game as a closer, but it should truly be credited to my teammates. The crowd is on their feet again, screaming even louder than they did when I walked out. I want to throw my cap in the air but this isn’t the playoffs or the World Series. I didn’t strike anybody out. Not today anyway.
I do, however, sport the ultimate Cheshire Cat grin as the whole team gathers on the field for the post game high-fives. Miguel gets a hug.
“¡Compadre!” he shouts. “Good show! Muy bueno, amigo!”
“But I didn’t strike anyone out,” I whine, only half pretending to be bummed.
“Aye, dios mio, you’re such a diva,” he laughs, slapping me on the back.
The press spills out onto the field, cameras flashing, phones held high like torches. I strain and bob around them, searching for Carrie as they shout my name. She’s standing on top of the dugout now - as a baseball wife, she gets cool privileges like that - sharing the same Cheshire Cat grin. All I want is to jump on top of that dugout and swing her around, but that has to wait; there are, after all, protocols and procedures. The press has to have their moment. She knows the drill, and she’s always been okay with that. Instead, she wipes her eyes and waves, mouthing, “Welcome home, baby.”
I blow a kiss at her, causing a few reporters to gush.
“Matt! Matt Turner!” One reporter suddenly shoves a microphone in my face. “How does it feel to be back with your original team as a closer now?”
“Ya know,” I reply, once again feeling that old Major League confidence, “all I can say is you really can go home again.”